Mercedes engineers working on the car in Sochi © Daimler Motorsport

Mercedes has won every single Russian Grand Prix (even the two before World War I) but had to work hard on Friday saying they got “nothing” out of FP1.

They still topped the session, mind. Valtteri Bottas continued his run of P1 in free practice one but not easily. He set a mid-session time on the mediums and was fortunate that it was able to stand until the end. Every long run attempt was compromised by brake issues with the same happening for his teammate Lewis Hamilton who was 19th.

Hamilton is chasing Michael Schumacher’s all time win record, and is hoping to match it with a win on Sunday, but starting the weekend on the back foot will surely weigh on his mind as it ramps up.

Lewis Hamilton was P19 in FP1 and second in FP2 © Daimler Motorsport

The short answer is yes, we can still expect Mercedes to be the dominant car this weekend but they have had a much harder time of it than usual. There was nothing on a plate, the world champions have had to claw back time they would normally already have from their simulator and previous experience.

The lack of significant competition for the Mercedes is really showing now. This would be exactly when they would have pounced. Looking at you guys Ferrari and Red Bull!

This weekend in Sochi is the first time the F1 circus has rocked up with the C5, C4 and C3 tyre compounds. These are the softest, compounds that can be brought to an F1 race. Monaco spec.

Not any old Monaco spec either. 2019 Monaco spec because the teams decided they didn’t like the 2020 tyres when they tried them. It was this that caused such a surprising race at the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix, which featured the same tyres used at Sochi last year on the much more abrasive surface of Silverstone in addition to the additional downforce on this year’s cars.

This could throw a spanner into the works for the teams because it is entirely different. 2020 downforce on tyres softer than last year. This makes anoraks like me interested in the little things.

This is the complete opposite to last time out in Mugello, itself a track hard on tyres. That Grand Prix featured a lot of tyre wear despite the compromised race from the two stoppages and the original safety car period.

With these being quite soft tyres, the onus of the session was on the harder compounds for the majority as you would expect, but as time went on, more and more teams decided to trial the soft tyres on long runs.

Long Runs

The tyres did seem to hold up well during long runs. The Mercedes did not succeed in trialling meaningful long runs in free practice one. They had to alter their longer run plans due to brake issues in the setup with Lewis Hamilton only placing 19th in the first session. Valtteri Bottas had massive lockup issues as well, ruining the medium tyres he was running. However if any team will not lose their heads when looking at the timing towers it is the all dominant Mercedes.

In free practice two Mercedes needed to focus on long runs as well as the usual quali simulation runs. Hamilton and Bottas were immediately out on the Medium and Hard tyres running opposite to how they did at the end of FP1. They started their quali runs very early to allow time for more long run attempts later on.

The Mercs then split the strategy with Bottas on a long soft run and Hamilton on a long medium run. The tyre degradation hinted at a stint of around eight to ten laps for the soft tyres before the medium begins to catch up with them in pace. Renault driver Esteban Ocon showed significant tyre wear after 10 laps of soft running as well. This is a lot more than you would usually expect in the famously low energy circuit of Sochi.

Regarding pace for the soft tyres Sergio Perez was streets ahead of the non-Mercedes teams with his best time during the stint half a second faster than chief rivals Daniel Ricciardo in the Renualt and Max Verstappen’s Red Bull only a fraction closer. The runner up fight at the start of the weekend looks like it is Racing Point’s to lose.

They have new upgrades on their car which Lance Stroll ran in Mugello who was a very respectable fourth fighting Daniel Ricciardo and Alex Albon for the final podium spot when he suffered his puncture putting him out of the race. The upgrades have performed well and the rest of the midfield should be nervous.

Verstappen and Ricciardo looked to be the closest challengers to Perez, both extracting a lot on their fastest long run times. Their respective teammates however, were about half a second back falling into the pace of some of the medium runners.

The mediums showed Daniil Kvyat to have incredible pace for AlphaTauri. He did two runs on the mediums, one early on and another to round out the session on higher fuel. His pace on both fuel loads were very good bettering Alex Albon’s fastest soft tyre time during the high fuel runs at the end of the session. Kvyat did a 1m41.766s as his best in the stint whilst Albon’s final soft stint garnered a 1m41.852s.

Kvyat’s later pace on the hard tyres in free practice two was at a similar level to Sergio Perez proving that the race pace down the midfield is incredibly close and will be incredibly reliant on qualifying where the set order is quite different.

Sergio Perez looks to be the midfield driver to beat on race pace in Sochi © Racing Point

Ferrari’s medium pace was on par with AlphaTauri with Sebastian Vettel’s pace matching that of Pierre Gasly. McLaren had a tricky session with Norris never showing much pace and Sainz crashing early on but they were able to bridge the gap between the traditional back three and the upper midfield.

Alfa Romeo, Haas and Williams all seemed fairly level with Alfa Romeo perhaps having a slight edge but the back will be tightly contested.

One Lap Pace

Mercedes ran their quali simulations 20 minutes into free practice two, unusually early in comparison to every other team in the session. Their qualifying runs weren’t clean either. Hamilton locked up at turn 13 on what would have been his fastest attempt and Bottas drifted it round the final corner with his final sector then six tenths slower.

For them it would be frustrating but it is all still obvious that they have immense potential in the car with a 1m32s there for the taking today making the step up to qualifying tomorrow even more ominous for rivals.

Ricciardo carried his strong form from the long runs into his quali pace once again placing half a second plus ahead of his teammate Ocon. Ricciardo has absolutely blitzed Ocon across the whole day with his long soft run being eight tenths faster. The young Frenchman has not been able to replicate his teammate’s performance at most races in 2020 which makes the incoming Fernando Alonso ever more threatening for him.

McLaren managed to jump ahead from their free practice one pace with Sainz and Norris both ahead of the very promising Sergio Perez. Racing Point will still have the edge on race pace but the fight between him, the McLarens and Ricciardo for the second row will be incredibly marginal.

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The Red Bull car was a touch scrappy at high speed with Max Verstappen just about saving a tankslapper and turn two and spinning on the exit of turn 14 on his next attempt. There was pace in the car for Verstappen who didn’t place too shabbily despite the nature of his laps.

Ferrari were the sixth fastest team both placing in the top 10 ahead of Albon and the AlphaTauris who appeared faster on long run pace however. Ferrari benefitted from some others having untidy runs and two reliable performers in Vettel and Leclerc able to put in a laptime.

Kimi Raikkonen showed the same Q2 worthy pace that he did in Mugello and Monza putting him top of the Williams, Alfa Romeo and Haas contingent in FP2 and setting Alfa Romeo up for another decent performance after a difficult first half of the season.

What will happen then?

Race pace and quali pace hold different blessings for different teams. Where some teams look very good for qualifying (for example McLaren) others have them covered on race pace but might not have the best grid position (e.g. AlphaTauri).

At the end of the day Mercedes pulled it back after a troublesome free practice one with order resumed in the afternoon, but the fight further down the field is incredibly interesting.

Daniel Ricciardo was in the top three in both Friday sessions. © Renault Sport F1

If Red Bull can string a lap together from their tetchy low drag setup then Verstappen at least is in the fight with the rapid Perez and Ricciardo. McLaren can qualify well but whether they can hold those positions is a quandary currently. Ferrari and AlphaTauri have a lot of potential in race pace but will have an uphill fight from their qualifying speed.

The back three teams remain the norm with Williams having qualifying pace but a lower race pace courtesy of their more draggy car impacting their tyres. Alfa Romeo look better in race trim and Haas are also there so there is still a chance for a surprise at the back as well as in the upper midfield.

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